The sounds of a language are arranged into packets called syllables, which are pieces of sound that have exactly one vowel. The syllable relies on the vowel to be pronounced. This is part of the reason why the consonants were followed by a in our lessons on consonants; consonants without vowels are difficult to say!
For some of you, the concept of a syllable might be straightforward. Others of you might not know what a syllable is, or perhaps you've forgotten. Regardless of your familiarity, you should read and understand the rules below. (There's no need to memorize them because you can probably figure out all of them through trial and error.) Each rule is followed with some examples of sounds that are syllables and sounds that are not syllables. To start:
A syllable must have a vowel, and it must have only one vowel.
- Syllables: a, ā, ki, ye, o, ghai, au
- Not syllables: k, r, oa, ua, ia, y, l, ava
When the anusvāra or visarga appears, it ends the syllable.
- Syllables: aṃ, kaṃ, kāṃ, aḥ, kaḥ, kāḥ
- Not syllables: ṃa, ḥa
A syllable must always start with a consonant. However, a syllable can start with a vowel only if one of the following is true:
- The syllable is at the beginning of a line.
- The syllable follows a consonant that is removed due to a special rule. This rule probably doesn't make much sense now. Ignore it for now.
In the examples below, I've used multiple syllables. I've separated these syllables with a "-" sign. These examples also feature some of the mistakes you might make when dividing something into syllables.
- Correct: tvā-ma-haṃ-śṛ-ṇo-mi
- Not Correct: tvām-a-haṃ-śṛ-ṇo-mi
- Not Correct: tvā-mah-aṃ-śṛ-ṇo-mi
- Not Correct: tvā-ma-haṃ-śṛṇ-o-mi
- Not Correct: tvā-ma-haṃ-śṛ-ṇom-i
A syllable can end in any number of consonants; but if a stop or nasal appears, it must end the syllable. (This explanation is non-traditional, but it is much easier to understand.)
- Correct: kṛt-snam
- Correct: kārt-snyā
- Correct: man-tri-tam
- Not Correct: kṛts-nam
- Not Correct: kārtsn-yā
- Not Correct: mant-ri-tam
The traditional explanation is that syllables never end in consonants, if possible. Thus mantritam would be ma-ntri-tam. This fact is reflected in Devanagari, as we will see later on.
Light and Heavy Syllables
A syllable that ends in a short vowel is called light. All other syllables are called heavy. Here are some examples:
- Light: a, ka, ra, hu, dhi, khṛ, ni
- Heavy: ar, kap, kā, kāp, ā, ār, kār, aḥ, ghaḥ, gāḥ, aṃ, naṃ, kaṃ
In a syllable, all consonants are treated equally. Voice and aspiration do not matter; both ta and dha are light syllables.
In Sanskrit, light syllables are called laghu and heavy syllables are called guru. laghu means "light" and is related to the English word "light." Meanwhile, guru means "heavy" and is related to the English word "grave," as in "a grave (or heavy) situation." So, this notion of syllables having "weight" is cross-cultural!
As we read each line, we should make each syllable as large as possible. But, we cannot break our rules above.
- Correct: ad-yaus, ā-sa, sa-mā-sa, kṛt-snam
- Not Correct: a-dyaus, ās-a, sam-ā-sa, kṛts-nam
Two Extended Examples
I'd like to convince you that it's important to know the difference between heavy and light syllables. Let's look at an example by Kalidasa (more correctly kālidāsa), the famous Sanskrit poet and dramatist. One of his most famous works is the Meghaduta (meghadūta), a lyric poem about a lover who longs for his faraway beloved and asks a passing cloud to travel through India to give a message to her. Consider the first two lines of the poem:
- kaścit kāntāvirahaguruṇā svādhikārapramattaḥ
- śāpenāstaṃgamitamahimā varṣabhogyeṇa bhartuḥ
Are these syllables arranged randomly? Not quite. For one, we can tell that there are 17 syllables in each line. But we can also reveal more patterns by splitting each line into separate syllables. We do so by moving from the beginning of a line to the end. Remember that only the first syllable can start with a vowel; all others must start with consonants.
Let's start dividing these two lines into syllables. The first line starts with k, and we continue to the vowel, which is a. So far, we have ka, but we must not stop here! We must make the syllable as large as possible, so we include the ś as well. But, we can't include the c; if we did so, then the next syllable would start with a vowel, which is not allowed. So, we have kaś as our final result.
In this way, we can proceed to separate the entire verse into syllables, as you see below.
— — — — . . . . . — — . — — . — —
(— is heavy, . is light.)
— — — — . . . . . — — . — — . — —
These two lines use the same arrangement of syllables! We can also say that they have the same meter. From our short study on syllables, we can more directly see why Kalidasa decided to use this meter. It steps slowly through the heavy syllables before dashing through the light ones and swaying between them at the end. It produces a sinuous and disarming mood that fits perfectly with the poem.
The details of Sanskrit meter are not featured in this guide. However, this guide does feature some supplemental lessons that discuss meter in more detail. You can access these lessons from the "Review" page at the end of each chapter.
We can also separate the syllables of more fluid poems, like the famous Bhagavad Gita. Consider the lines below. Some of the lines have spaces in them; these are irrelevant when it comes to splitting lines into syllables, and you should ignore them.
- dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ
- māmakāḥ pāṇḍavāścaiva kim akurvata saṃjaya
By the same process, we get the division below. The pattern here is more subtle:
— — — — . — — — . . — — . — . —
— . — — . — — . . . — . . — . .
This is the first verse of the Bhagavad Gita. Although each line here is shorter, the relationship between lines is not as clear as for the lines of the Meghaduta. Here is a very literal translation of the four lines:
On the dharma-field, on the Kuru-field, assembled together, wanting to fight,
my (sons) and (the) Pandavas, what did they do, Sanjaya?
Or, more poetically:
On dharma's field, the field of Kurus, all assembled wanting war
were my sons and the Pandavas. What did they do, O Sanjaya?
If you know nothing about the Bhagavad Gita, do not be afraid! A summary of the text is given in the next lesson.